September 24, 2022

Alan Cumming Follows His Passion in "Burn"

The very limited six-day run of Burn, Alan Cumming’s solo performance piece at The Joyce Theater, ends this weekend but there is so much joy in it that I can't resist celebrating it. 

Cumming, who broke out as the emcee in the 1998 revival of Cabaret, has gone on to make a good living doing movies (“Spy Kids,”  “X-Men”) and TV shows (“The Good Wife,” “Instinct”) but he has remained at heart a true artist who is always looking for new ways to express himself.

In 2008, Cumming opened that year’s Lincoln Center summer festival in an exuberant production of the seldom-performed The Bacchae that had him making his entrance by descending, upside-down, from the ceiling. Five years later he turned in an intense performance in a one-man version of Macbeth in which he played all the parts. He’s also written three memoirs and a children’s book, is a co-producer of A Strange Loop and the host of “Club Cumming,” a showcase for queer comedians that is currently streaming on Showtime (click here to check that out).

Now Burn is at the Joyce, the Chelsea venue for dance, because Cumming teamed up with the choreographer Steven Hoggett to create a movement-and-word tribute to the 18th century poet Robert Burns, revered as the national bard of their native Scotland. 

After working on it for nearly seven years, the duo took the piece to the Edinburgh International Festival in August (click here to read about their journey). When word came that they were also bringing it here to New York, my always-up-for-anything theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets to see it.

To be honest, the show is far from perfect. For starters, Cumming is not a trained dancer and, at 57, he often gets winded as he executes the movements that Hoggett and his co-choreographer Vicki Manderson have created for him to perform. The words he speaks are drawn from some of Burns’ poems but more so from the letters that Burns wrote and that reveal more about the man inside the icon. But, alas, some of those words were occasionally drowned out by Anna Meredith’s score, a crazy-quilt fusion of Scottish folk tunes and techno beats.

However in the end, none of that really mattered. Burns, the author of the New Year’s Eve classic “Auld Lang Syne,” is a compelling subject. The son of a poor tenant farmer, he was largely home schooled and spent most of his early years laboring on the farm although he never developed a knack for it and would struggle with making a living until he died at the age of 37. 

Burns began writing mainly as a way to woo girls and he remained lusty throughout his life, siring 12 children, three out of wedlock and the last born on the day of his funeral. But his poems, an innovative mix of Scottish and English wordplay, eventually branched out to deal with such subjects as class inequality, the role of the church in society, the poet's own intermittent bouts of depression and his always abiding love for his homeland. 

Cumming and Hoggett are proud Scotsmen too and both have worked often with the National Theater of Scotland, where they incubated this piece. As always, Hoggett, who has devised distinctive movement for such shows as Once, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, found surprisingly playful and inventive ways to tell Burns' story. 

There were bits of stage magic—a quill pen that writes by itself—and other memorable images: the women in Burns’ life were represented by shoes that dangled from the ceiling on ribbons. Terrific videos by Andrzej Goulding and effective lighting by Tim Lutkin recreated the Scottish landscape and the peaks and valleys inside Burns’ mind. 

And, of course, Cumming was as passionate and committed as ever. He never left the stage during the 60-minute performance and his obvious delight in what he was doing kept the audience right in the palm of his hand. 

As Bill and I stood outside the theater after the show, he said how glad he was to have seen it. Me too.


September 3, 2022

A Labor Day Salute to Stage Managers

Monday is Labor Day, which means that it’s time for my annual tribute to some of the people whose labor makes the theater we all love work. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that I’m just getting around to celebrating stage managers, who may be the hardest working people in the business.

Stage managers are the linchpins that connect the creative and technical sides of every production. They make sure that actors don’t forget their cues and that props are where they should be onstage. They run tech rehearsals so that the lighting and sound folks can work out their plans and replacement rehearsals so that newcomers to a production can figure out what they’re supposed to do. They provide a shoulder for everyone from the director to the dressers to cry on. And they gamely—and graciously—shoulder the blame when things go wrong, even when it isn’t their fault (click here to read some specific stories about what they do).

I got some further insight into what it takes to be a good stage manager by reading “Whenever You’re Ready: Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager.” When Polley first started out in the early 1970s as an assistant stage manager at the Ontario-based festival, an old-timer told her “If anybody notices you are doing your job, it’s because you’ve just made a mistake…good stage management is invisible.” 

Over the next four decades, Polley would take that to heart, quietly dealing with everything from doling out breath mints to actors about to engage in an onstage kiss to administering first aid when an actor collapsed in the middle of a scene. And, like her brother and sister stage managers at theaters large and small, doing it all without the glory that comes from being onstage, content to settle for the occasional compliment of “Good show.”

Polley had retired by the time Covid created the unprecedented crisis of closed theaters all over the world. But Richard Hester, a Broadway stage manager who has worked on such shows as Titanic, Sweet Smell of Success and Jersey Boys, swung into action and, in typical stage manager style, kept up the morale of his colleagues in the community with a series of blog posts about how he and they were making it through the pandemic. He’s collected those tales about that darkest time between March 2020 and April 2021 in his new book “Hold, Please: Stage Managing A Pandemic.”

Another thing to come out of the pandemic was the call for greater diversity and inclusion backstage as well as onstage. There have been stage managers of color in the past. My college schoolmate, the great Fémi Sarah Heggie, got her start with the Negro Ensemble Company and was one of the first African-American women to get an Equity card as a stage manager. 

Over the years, Fémi has worked on such Broadway shows as Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death, Jelly’s Last Jam and Once on This Island.  And there have been others, including Lisa Dawn Cave, who has some 20 Broadway credits over the past two decades, including the original production of Caroline, or Change and Shuffle Along. 

But a study conducted by Actors' Equity Association (which represents stage managers as well as actors) revealed that between 2016 and 2019, fewer than 3% percent of the stage managers working on professional productions in the entire country were black (click here to read more about that). And when African Americans do get hired, they tend to get hired primarily for shows by black playwrights or those with largely black casts.

Lately, there have been some more hopeful signs of change.  Both the La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta have started programs that provide BIPOC fellows with salaries, benefits and the opportunity to work on major (and hopefully not just black) professional productions. 

There’s obviously still a long way to go.  But as we move along, I hope we’ll all take the time to recognize and appreciate the vital work that all stage managers do. In the meantime, I hope they’ll accept this belated salute and my most sincere wishes that they—and you, dear readers—have a Happy Labor Day.


August 13, 2022

"The Butcher Boy" and "On that Day in Amsterdam" May Have Arrived Too Soon

Everyone who loves serious theater loves the idea of giving talented new writers a chance to show what they can do. The question is the timing. Too many workshops (and the notes that come along with them) can leach a show and its creator of the originality that made them special in the first place. But a premature production doesn’t do them any favors either. At least those are the thoughts that popped into my head as I sat through two recent shows by newcomers that have been given full-fledged productions that unfortunately reveal the shortcomings of each.

The first was The Butcher Boy, Asher Muldoon’s musical adaptation of the Irish writer Patrick McCabe’s novel that is now playing at the Irish Rep through Sept. 11. Muldoon, who is about to begin his senior year at Princeton, ambitiosly wrote the book, music and lyrics. But he may have bitten off more than he could chew.

To be fair, McCabe’s unsettling novel would be a mouthful for anyone. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a troubled boy named Francie Brady. Francie’s father is an alcoholic. His mother is suicidal. Physical abuse in the home is routine. Francie copes by bullying other kids, committing petty crimes and pretending that his life is fine. 

But when a schoolmate’s mother accuses him and his family of behaving like pigs, Francie spirals into a psychotic state in which he is haunted by the images of people with pig-like faces who prod him to do increasingly horrific things. 

Muldoon takes a literal approach to the tale. In his version, Francie, who frequently breaks the fourth wall to narrate what’s going on, is the only character who is anywhere near fully-realized. The others in the small working-class Irish town where he lives are barely sketched in at all so their actions make little sense. 

And there’s no attempt to provide a reason for telling Francie’s story by connecting it to anything larger than itself. Which leaves us in the audience just waiting for one horrible thing to happen after another. And plenty of them do happen.

The score is a genial but undistinguished mix of Irish folk music, British music hall tunes and generic pop. The lyrics may have been more distinctive but the sound design was so poor that I could barely make them out. The elderly couple behind me cranked their listening devices so high that the audio feedback crackled around us and they still complained at intermission that they couldn’t hear what was being sung either.

According to interviews he’s given, Muldoon was working a front-of-the-house job at the Irish Rep when he showed its artistic director Charlotte Moore and producing director Ciarán O’Reilly his script and they decided to do his show (click here to hear more about that). And under O’Reilly’s direction, the Rep has gone all out with the staging for The Butcher Boy. 

The handsome set is dominated by a giant TV screen on which projected images from the 1960s ranging from Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk at the U.N. to Rod Serling introducing episodes of “The Twilight Zone” help set the jittery mood of that era. Meanwhile, the 12-member cast, led by the hardworking Nicholas Barasch as Francie, does the best it can, despite their singing sometimes wandering off-key.

The result is a show that might have been the hit of a college musical writing course or even of a Fringe festival but that instead now comes off as somewhat jejune. 

Clarence Coo, the author of On That Day in Amsterdam, which opened this week in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters, is older than Muldoon and his play has taken a more traditional route having been workshopped at such theatrical incubators as the Sundance Institute and New York Stage and Film, but the show is still his world premiere as a professional playwright and it too bears the marks of a fledgling pushed out of the nest too soon.

The play has been promoted as the romantic story of two young men who hook up and then spend the following day wandering around the titular city even though each is scheduled to leave town that night. But On That Day in Amsterdam wants to be more than that. One of the men, Sammy, is a refugee who has fled his Middle Eastern homeland and is about to end what has already been an arduous journey by being smuggled into London. The other, Kevin, is an American college kid traveling through Europe on his mother’s purloined credit card. 

Coo clearly wants to compare the restrictions and privileges their backgrounds place on each man but he undercuts that with meditations on art, detours into the lives of Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Anne Frank and a travelogue of the city; just about every museum there gets name checked.

It’s difficult to dramatize all of that in 90 minutes and so Coo falls back on having his characters narrate the story instead of performing it. Director Zi Alikhan, who describes himself  as “a queer, first-generation South Asian-American, culturally Muslim theater Director” would seem to be the perfect person to stage this show. But instead of drawing me into the narrative, many of Alikhan's decisions pushed me out of it.  

The story is framed as a book that Kevin is trying to write about his brief time with Sammy and so I’m guessing that placing most of the action behind a scrim is supposed to suggest the gauziness of his memory but instead it just creates a barrier between the players and the audience. 

Similarly projecting close-ups of the actors’ faces on the scrim doesn't create an intimacy with them but is as off-putting as when Ivo van Hove did the same thing in his revival of West Side Story.  

Neither Muldoon nor especially Coo, who has won such prestigious honors as the Whiting Award for emerging writers and the Yale Drama Series Prize, is untalented. So I’m hoping they’ll continue to develop their talent and that when the time is right, someone will give them another chance to show what they can truly do.  


August 6, 2022

This Post-Modern "Oresteia" is No Classic

Greek tragedies don’t get done a lot. Which is why I really try to see them when I can. So my theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets for the new production of the Oresteia that is playing at the Park Avenue Armory as soon as they went online. But what we ended up seeing was what Bill aptly labeled "an Oresteia”  For this version of the three-part tragedy that Aeschylus wrote in the 5th century B.C. has been rewritten and directed with self-congratulatory postmodern flair by the British wunderkind Robert Icke. It’s playing in rep with the Icke-directed Hamlet through Aug. 13 (click here to read more about that).

The original Oresteia, the only surviving trilogy from the Golden Age of classical Greek drama, chronicled the saga of the death of the warrior-king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife Klytemnestra, her murder by their children and the trial of their son Orestes. But in this production, first seen at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2015, Icke gets rid of the traditional chorus and instead re-enacts onstage its usual telling of the ritualistic child killing of the couple’s daughter Iphigenia, which is what first gets the cycle of revenge rolling.

The three-and-a-half hour production is performed in modern dress and with contemporary language in a blatant bid to make the plays more accessible to today’s audiences. I don't need actors to wear the togas and the masks that have traditionally been used for productions of Greek plays but I have to say that for me at least, Icke's updating robs the narrative of the mythic grandeur that has sustained it for nearly 2500 years. 

Although a soothsayer begins the evening by reciting the names of dieties from a wide spectrum of religions, the gods are missing in Icke's version of the story. So it makes no sense—two millennium spoiler alert—that Agamemnon would sacrifice his daughter to win favor in the war that he is preparing to wage. 

And while I don’t mind having Klytemnestra drop the f-word, I also wanted her and the others to speak some elevated language that would lift their monologues from the everyday dinner conversations that are repeated throughout the performance.

To be fair, there are moments that work. I sat up in my seat when Angus Wright’s Agamemnon and Anastasia Hille’s Klytemnestra went toe-to-toe in the argument over the fate of their daughter. 

Both actors are tall and lean and radiate the tightly-coiled energy of panthers. Wright also has the dulcet voice and calibrated diction in which so many of the best British actors root their power and Hille unleashes the kind of raw passion that would do an old-style Method actor proud.  “This is my child – part of my body,” she yowls in anguish. Their clash is wrenching. 

A coup de théâtre that marks the aftermath of Iphigenia’s death is equally impressive.  But all of that happens in the first act and the following three fail to keep the momentum going.  

Icke frames the entire production as a series of therapy sessions in which Orestes recounts what happened, wrestles with being the sole survivor of his troubled family and prepares to go on trial for the murder of his mother. Bits of evidence are flashed onto to video screens above the stage but theatergoers who’ve forgotten the stories from their grade school readings of Edith Hamilton’s “Tales of Gods and Heroes” may be confused by what's going on.  

Some double-casting and the post-death appearances of several characters only add to the murkiness. So here’s another spoiler, albeit I hope a helpful one: Wright plays the ghost of Agamemnon, his wife’s lover Aegisthus and a trial court judge in the final act.

In those final scenes, Icke tacks on some observations about feminism and politics but they might have worked better if they’d been braided into the entire narrative. 

Throughout the performance, a digital display appears to mark the exact time of death of each victim. This clock is also used to countdown the time during each intermission. And when my mind wandered as it occasionally did, I used it to calculate how much time remained before the show would finally end. 


July 16, 2022

"Between the Lines" Tells a Familiar Story

So many musicals nowadays are based on movies or other pop culture IP (by which I mean jukebox musicals of one kind or another) that it’s nicely retro to have one based on a book. That’s the case with Between the Lines, the new musical that opened this week at the Tony Kiser Theater. It's based on the eponymous YA novel that the bestselling author Jodi Picoult co-wrote in 2012 with her then-teenage daughter Samantha van Leer (click here to watch an interview about that with Picoult).

The original idea was van Leer’s. What, she asked her mom, might happen if characters acted one way when someone was reading the narrative in which they appeared but took on completely different personalities than the ones that had been written for them once the book was closed?  

The answer they came up with was a clever story about a prince in a picture-book fairytale named Oliver. In his closed-book moments Oliver has grown tired of slaying dragons and saving princesses. In fact, he so desperately yearns to enter the real world that he magically makes contact with a sympathetic reader named Delilah. 

She’s a teen who knows that she’s too old for picture books but has found refuge in the guaranteed happy endings in Oliver's fairytale after her parents' divorce has caused her and her mother to move to a new town where her mom cleans homes and her new schoolmates treat Delilah as an outcast. 

It's not the kind of book I usually read but I confess that I was charmed by the story, particularly by the amusing alter-egos Picoult and van Leer created for the fairytale’s other characters who, in their closed-book time, have made peace with the narrative that Oliver is trying to escape: the evil villain Rapskullio is actually a sensitive artist and lepidopterist, or butterfly lover; the regal Queen Maureen is a homey earth mother who likes to bake cookies and the man-crazy mermaids are proud feminists.

I’d looked forward to seeing all of them and their cohorts onstage as Delilah and Oliver fell in love and attempted to find ways to break the barrier between their real and fairytale worlds. And I was further heartened by the fact that the score was by a rare all-female team, the newcomers Elyssa Samsel and Katie Anderson.  

The presence of Daryl Roth as the show’s lead producer also promised a first-rate production. And under Jeff Calhoun’s sure-handed direction, the show delivers one with a talented cast led by the sweet-voiced Arielle Jacobs as Delilah and the pitch-perfect (in both voice and looks) Jake David Smith as Oliver. 

And they get invaluable support from, among others, the veterans Vicki Lewis and Julia Murney and a particularly appealing Will Burton, whose comic and dancing skills are equally endearing. There are also spot-on costumes by Gregg Barnes, an amusing and surprisingly malleable set by Tobin Ost and terrific video projections by Catie Hevner.

So I’m not sure why I was so disappointed by this staged version of Between the Lines.  Maybe it’s because book writer Timothy Allen McDonald, who has a background in adapting children’s books and Broadway shows for the youth editions that school productions use, has put so much effort into checking all of the boxes that he and his colleagues think will appeal to the young demographic they’re so eager to woo. 

Whatever the reason, the result turns out to be a patchwork quilt composed of what appear to be scraps from other shows. The conflict between Delilah and her mom has been amped up so that Murney can sing a Dear Evan Hansen-style power ballad about the difficulties of being a single mom.

Delilah’s only friend at school Jules is now nonbinary, nicely played by the nonbinary actor Wren Rivera but still echoing a similar character in Jagged Little Pill. And Delilah’s nemesis at school Allie McAndrews (played by the understudy Aubrey Matalon at the performance I attended) is a separated-at-birth twin of Regina George, the Queen Bee in Mean Girls

What’s more, the entire ensemble is required to play roles in both Delilah’s real-world and Oliver’s fantasy one, a callback to the 1939 “Wizard of Oz" in which the actors playing the workers on Dorothy’s farm in Kansas also doubled as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in Oz; that may have worked in that classic movie but it undercuts the narrative here. Meanwhile the backstories of the fantasy characters that won me over when I first read “Behind the Lines” get short shrift here. 

Still, almost every performer is given a solo, some of them unnecessary (do we really need the school librarian's paean to Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy?) and they simply add to the show’s 2 hours and 15 min. running time. 

Most of the melodies are catchy and many of the lyrics are smart (click here for a Spotify playlist of some of the songs) but the score doesn’t manage to distinguish itself from the legions of others that now mix show tunes, hip-hop and power ballads.

Of course despite my fondness for Picoult and van Leer's book, I’m not the target demographic their musical is aiming to please. And I imagine some tweens might really enjoy this show. Even so, I miss the enchantment I discovered in the pages of “Between the Lines” and it's made me a little grumpy that I didn't find a similar magic onstage in Between the Lines.



July 9, 2022

Women and Politics in "POTUS" and "53% Of"

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. At least that’s the approach two recent plays have taken with the current political morass in which we all find ourselves.  Selina Fillinger’s farce POTUS (that’s the acronym for President of the United States) is currently scheduled to play at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre through Aug. 14. Steph Del Rosso’s awkwardly named satire 53% Of (its title refers to the percentage of white women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016) ends a brief two-week run at Second Stage’s uptown space the McGinn/Cazale Theater this weekend. 

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but both boast all-female casts and nearly all-female creative teams. Heck, POTUS’s subtitle is “Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” and its starry cast is led by Julie White and Rachel Dratch, both of whom were nominated for Tonys for playing the beleaguered chief of staff to the unseen president and his bewildered personal secretary. The young actresses in 53% Of aren’t yet as well-known, but they gamely play multiple parts, including the male roles, in their production. 

Both shows, written by twentysomething playwrights who clearly lean toward the left end of the political spectrum, made me chuckle but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the underlying message that either was trying to get across. The women in POTUS—be they the reporter who covers him, the press secretary who covers for him, the mistress who, ah, services him or the First Lady who puts up with him—all enable the man-child in the Oval Office. 

They may take time out to strike power poses or to give one another you-go-girl pep talks but they all miserably fail the feminist Bechdel test because although there are a whole bunch of women in the play, including the president’s lesbian sister, all they do is talk to one another about a man. And all of their efforts are directed at smoothing over his gaffs (it’s a Republican administration) and keeping their guy in office. 

I know. I know. It’s just a farce. And Susan Stroman’s jaunty direction and Beowulf Boritt’s turntable set keep the antics moving, complete with the requisite slamming doors. Plus at the curtain call there’s a crowd-pleasing dance and sing-along set to a Joan Jett anthem. Hillary Clinton even went to see the show this past week (click here to read about that) and she had a great time.

But in the end, I came away from the show feeling that Fellinger (click here to read more about her) left the blame for the political mess on the shoulders of the women and I couldn’t shake the additional feeling that when the music ended, the characters would end up right back where we found them, holding up some male doofus instead of doing their own thing.  

I had hoped that 53% Of was going to give me some insights into why women behave that way. The play opens shortly after the 2016 election at a meeting of white suburban Trump supporters who are congratulating themselves on their man’s win but who become uncomfortable when a newcomer, attracted by their social media postings, arrives proudly wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag. 

Alas, the play’s title is a misnomer and instead of digging into the dynamics of how the suburbanites reconcile their support for Trump with their unease for what he stands for, the play hopscotches to other settings: a bro-style gathering of the husbands of the women in the first scene, a get-together of self-consciously progressive young white women in an urban setting and finally a meeting at a bar between one of those white progressives and a black friend.  

The cast worked hard as they moved from one scene to the next and Lux Haac’s costumes helped a little but director Tiffany Nichole Greene couldn’t figure out how to make all of the quick changes work. So I was confused by the third scene, uncertain if its young women were the rebellious daughters of the women and men in the first two scenes or completely unrelated characters. 

The result was a series of SNL-type sketches that not only lacked depth but flicked at the idea that there’s little difference between the white women who voted for Trump and those who didn’t.  Which I don’t believe is true and didn’t find funny at all.


July 2, 2022

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2022

Now that Covid has been around for more than two years and vaccines have made contracting the virus a little less scary, a new kind of normal is settling in. The Tony award ceremonies returned to Radio City Music Hall. Tourists are trickling back into Times Square. And Broadway has dropped its mask-wearing mandate, at least for now. 

But some things haven’t changed: as I did in the summers both before the shut down and during it, I’ve nested myself on our terrace as soon as the weather would permit with a drink in one hand (my husband K has been whipping up caipirinhas this year) and an iPad in the other so that I can switch between reading books on my Kindle app and listening to them on my Audible app. 

As usual, most of the books have had something to do with theater. Most this year are fiction, a reflection of the fact that people are writing some really good novels and short stories about the world of the theater but also a reflection of the fact that I love those kinds of stories. So in keeping with what has become one of my favorite summer rites, I’ve put together a list of 10 books for those of you who, like me, enjoy theater-related reading during the lazy hours of this sweet season. In the meantime, Happy Fourth of July.

All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks.  You have to wait all the way until Chapter 25 for Brooks to start talking about teaming up with Susan Stroman, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to create their Broadway phenom, The Producers. But he’s such a great raconteur that even the accounts of his time in the army are entertaining. And there are even more enjoyable stories about his working on the all-star writing staff (Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Joseph Stein, Michael Stewart) that created Sid Caesar’s “Your Shows of Shows;” his writing and directing of such comedic film classics as "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and his zany courtship of and very happy 40-year marriage with the actress Anne Bancroft. Plus, if you listen to the audiobook, you can hear Brooks break into song whenever the mood seemed to strike him.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler. This novel about the celebrated 19th century acting clan was written by a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize and so can be added to your calorie count for literary fiction. Beginning in 1822 and ending with the aftermath of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln (an avid theater lover) it is both a family saga and a historical chronicle of the events leading up to and through the Civil War. But the best parts are the vivid details—the constant and uncomfortable travel, the fierce rivalries that animated audiences, the declamatory style that exhausted its practitioners—that defined the theater world of the Antebellum era.

Fallout by Sadie Jones. In all honesty, the characters are annoying in this novel about the personal and professional entanglements of four twentysomethings trying to start their theatrical careers. But the glimpses the story provides into the London theater scene of the 1970s is catnip for any theater lover. I don’t know enough about the players in that theater scene but I suspect others who do know it will have extra fun figuring out the real-life inspirations for the folks in the book. Email me if you have any informed guesses on who the villain—the slightly older and sexually ambivalent producermight be.

From Gods to Bad Boys: A History of Theatre in Twelve Lives by Giles Ramsay. The god is Dionysus and the baddest of the boys is the playwright Joe Orton in this chatty history of theater told through profiles of the men (and a couple of women) who made it. Some of Ramsay’s choices can be eccentric (a whole section is devoted to the now forgotten British actor Victor Henry) and no Americans made the list but the book still makes its case that from the very beginning theater makers have always striven to make the work they put on the stage truly reflect the lives and concerns of the people watching it.

Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. If you’re a fan of the Noah Baumbach movie “Marriage Story,” that starred Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, there’s a strong chance that you’ll love this engaging novel about a couple who, after scrimping and maneuvering to maintain a small New York theater company for 20 years, move to Los Angeles, where they make discoveries about themselves, their definitions of success and their marriage.

In the Long Run: A Cultural History of Broadway’s Hit Plays by Jordan Schildcrout. Most theater lovers can list the longest-running musicals right off the top of their heads. But it’s tricker when it comes to naming the longest-running plays because there haven’t been many of them in recent years. Which is why Schildcrout’s chronicle of shows that clocked 1,000 performances or more (Lightnin', a comedy that opened in 1918 and ran for three years, was the first; Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, which closed in 1986 after its three-year run, was the last) is such a treat.  As Schildcrout notes in his introduction, critics didn’t always love these shows but audiences did and together they provide an invaluable portrait of a time when Broadway truly was mass entertainment. You can hear an interview with Schildcrout that BroadwayRadio's James Marino and I did (as well as more about some of the other books on this list) by clicking here.

I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein. How could this not be great?  Fierstein has been involved with so many seminal productions (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray, Kinky Boots). He’s known so many celebrated people in so many different fields (Anaïs Nin, Andy Warhol, Ellen Stewart, Bella Abzug, Cyndi Lauper). And it goes without saying that he is inherently funny. So this wildly-entertaining memoir, which covers his years as a cast-album-loving Brooklyn boy in the 1950s, as a club kid prowling for sex in the ‘60s, as an emerging talent in the downtown theater scene of the 1970s, as an activist during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and as an eventual Broadway icon, is a real page turner. And listening to Fierstein read the book in his distinctively raspy growl is like curling up for a gossipy gab with an old friend. 

The Show Girl by Nicola Harrison.  Set during the final years of the Roaring Twenties, this novel focuses on the personal and professional ups-and-downs of an ambitious young woman who becomes a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s basically a romance novel complete with a rich and hunky love interest but it’s also a fun behind-the-curtains look at what life might have been like for Sally, Phyllis and the other “girls upstairs” in Follies.

The Sisters Sweet by Elizabeth Weiss. The old sensation-loving vaudeville circuit provides the backdrop for this novel about twin sisters who climb up the billboard when their father, who once had stage dreams of his own, comes up with the idea of them pretending to be cojoined, or Siamese, twins. The deception works until the ambitions of one destroys the act and leads them down separate paths. The story is so redolent of that itinerant showbiz era that I kept expecting Mama Rose to make a cameo.

Vamp Until Ready by James MagruderIt would be hard to find a lovelier collection of theater-related short stories than this one. These five are linked by a group of people—gay and straight, theater professionals and amateurs—who are connected to a summer stock theater company in Ithaca, New York during the Reagan-Bush era and by the ways in which theater can change and expand lives. Supporting characters in one story become the leads in others, a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant reminder that we’re all the stars in the tales we tell ourselves.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years:

June 25, 2022

Broadway—Many Kinds of Media—& Me


For the second time this month, there will be no regular post here. It’s not because there haven’t been shows to see and talk about: although it will be weeks before anything new opens on Broadway, a steady stream of comedies, dramas and musicals have been opening off-Broadway. And I’ve been fortunate enough to see a good number of them. But I’ve been busy in other ways too and so instead of posting a review as I usually do, I’m going to share some of that other stuff with you.

The Monday after the Tony Awards ceremony, my friend Patrick Pacheco invited me to record an episode of his TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts” to talk about the Tonys and the future of Broadway. I was in great company because also on the panel were Helen Shaw, the theater critic for New York magazine; and Adam Feldman, the theater editor for Time Out New York and the longtime president of the New York Drama Critics Circle. We all had a lot to say and we discovered that each of us was a card-carrying member of the fan club for the incredible Deirdre O’Connell, who delighted us all when she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Dana H., Lucas Hnath’s play about his mother’s kidnapping by a white supremacist. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

A couple of days before that, BroadwayRadio released the latest installment of “All the Drama,” my podcast about plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over the years. This recent episode focuses on the 1995 winner, Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta. I was lucky enough to get Ben Brantley, the former New York Times theater critic and a longtime Foote fan, to talk with me about Foote and his play.  You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.

Meanwhile, I was so taken with one of those new shows I saw, Queen, a drama about two female scientists whose careers and friendship are jeopardized when one finds an error in their research, that I knew I wanted to talk more about the show with its playwright Madhuri Shekar. So I restarted "Stagecraft," my old podcast in which I regularly talked with playwrights and musical book writers but that I had to put on hiatus when Covid shut down theaters in the city. I was delighted—but not at all surprised—to find that Shekar is just as smart and lively as her play is.  You can check out what she had to say by clicking here.  

Finally, James Marino, the head of BroadwayRadio, has invited me to join him and regular commentators Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere on this Sunday’s episode of “This Week on Broadway” to talk about some of the shows we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks and you’ll be able to listen to that by clicking here.

 

 

 


June 11, 2022

"Exception to the Rule" and "soft" Offer Laments on the Tragedy of Being, Young, Poor and Black or Brown in Today's America


The settings and the circumstances are the same in two new off-Broadway shows that portray the plight of the young Black and Brown people who are so often trapped in systems that view them—and force them to see themselves—as failures who have no real future ahead of them.

Both open in sterile classrooms that have seen better days. And each is populated by a half dozen or so teens who are paying penance for wrongdoings. Audiences are seated on either side of both playing areas, creating an intimacy that ultimately makes viewers complicit in each story’s outcome.

The students in Dave Harris’ Exception to the Rule, now playing in the Roundabout Theatre’s Black Box through June 26, have been assigned to detention on the Friday before a holiday week-end. Most of them are no strangers to this purgatory. 

They’ve done penance before for talking back to teachers, violating the school’s dress code, getting into fights and otherwise failing to follow the rules. But the regulars are shocked when they’re joined by Erika, a straight-A student with a rep for doing the right things.

As they wait for the detention-room teacher to show up and sign the pass slips that will allow them to leave, the others flirt and bicker with one another and try to guess why Erica is among them. Director Miranda Haymon has her game young cast playing much of this for laughs and the audience at the matinee I attended eagerly lapped up all the antics.

But then, as announcements over the school’s faulty public address system became more difficult to decipher and more ominous, the students became more frantic, started revealing troubling details about their lives and began to worry about what would happen if the teacher never came and they were never allowed to leave.  

Only two dare to even attempt leaving on their own. And by the end, the room—actors and audience members—was left silent. 

The teacher is very present in Donja R. Love’s soft, which just opened in MCC Theater’s Frankel Theater this week. But the dedication of that teacher, Mr. Isaiah as his students call him, doesn’t seem to make that much difference in the fates of the students at the residential juvenile detention facility where he teaches English. 

At first, things seem more upbeat as the play opens with Mr. Isaiah complimenting his students on their compositions about Othello and encouraging them to write their own poetry. He’s taught them enough about poetic forms that they proudly distinguish between choosing to do cinquains, haikus and sonnets. And he even allows them to freestyle their results to the accompaniment of his beat-boxing (Warning: audience members who aren’t regular hip-hop listeners may have some trouble keeping up with the rapid flow).

These youngsters seem older than the kids in Exception to the Rule, the dysfunctions they’ve experienced are more apparent and the crimes they’ve committed are generally more serious. But both Love and Mr. Isaiah recognize that there is value in these boy-men if only the conditions can be created that will allow it to blossom. 

Instead, Mr. Isaiah is forced to use dilapidated textbooks because there isn’t money for new ones in the institution’s budget, societal norms about black masculinity force the boys to hide any softness within them and the suicide of the most talented and charismatic of the group pushes them all to the breaking point. 

Under the visceral direction of Whitney White and the fight choreography of UnkleDave's Fight-House, their outbursts were so raw and realistic that I found myself worrying for the safety of the actors. Isaiah’s desperation to connect with his students and his sense of guilt when he’d let them down also rang true.

And yet, I didn’t find myself as moved by soft as I had been by Exception to the Rule.

Maybe that’s because the young men in soft were given so many hardships—sexual abuse, parental neglect, homelessness, homophobia, drugs, AIDS—that it seemed to me as though boxes were being checked off as the play leaned into the expected stereotypes without challenging or, at least, deepening them. 

Or maybe it was because having the most fem gay character provide most of the humor also struck me as a tired trope. Or because although the ending—which I won’t spoil—seemed to soothe a good part of the audience at my performance, it annoyed me for wanting to have it both ways.

Still I think what both of these plays are trying to say is that most of the young people in these situations have limited choices. So both plays are worthy of being seen by serious theatergoers but it’s the real-life tragedies they depict to which attention should be paid.

 

 


June 4, 2022

"Dreaming Zenzile" Gets Lost in Its Reveries

Dreaming Zenzile, the musical that opened at New York Theatre Workshop this week, began as a tribute concert.  And it probably should have stayed one.  

The show, a co-production with the National Black Theatre, is now a musical biography that its writer and star Somi Kakoma created to honor her idol, the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba. 

Kakoma has a lush, velvety voice, shares some of Makeba’s winning charisma and she looks terrific in the magnificent gowns that costume designer Mimi Plange created for her. But Kakoma’s dramaturgical chops are disastrously weak.

Dreaming Zenzile (the show takes its title from Makeba’s name in her native Xhosa language) opens at the 2008 concert during which Makeba suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 76. As Kakoma's Makeba tries to resist four white-clad angels of death who have come to carry her away, significant moments in the singer's life flash before her eyes and ours.  

It’s not a bad conceit for a show but there are several problems with the way it unfolds here. For starters, Makeba’s life story isn’t as familiar to most theatergoers as, say, Tina Turner’s is. So the fever-dream-style references to names and incidents just swirl by. And it doesn’t help that director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her actors speaking in over-emphasized African accents that make it difficult to understand what they’re saying.  

There are stops for re-enactments of some of the more dramatic events but they tend to deal with now-tired tropes: the abusive husband, the racism that eats at the singer, the guilt of being an absentee parent. 

There’s no doubt that these things happened to Makeba but similar things happened to Dinah Washington in the 1998 musical Dinah Was, to Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (for which Audra McDonald won her sixth Tony) to Nina Simone in Little Girl Blue which just completed a three-month off-Broadway run and to Tina Turner in her current namesake Broadway musical. So just saying that bad things happen to good and talented women is no longer enough.

With the exception of Tina all these woe-was-her shows tend to be modest affairs, performed with small casts on minimally designed stages.  Dreaming Zenzile hews to type here too. 

There’s a four-piece band onstage and a four-member ensemble who play everything from the angels of death to Makeba’s family, friends and fans over the decades. The actors are talented but they’re called on to morph so quickly from one character to another that I gave up trying to figure out who was who. 

Of course most people come to these shows for the music, to hear the songs that evoke memories for them. Dreaming Zenzile is at a disadvantage here too. Makeba had some hits in the ‘60s, including “The Click Song” and “Pata Pata” but few are remembered today. And although she’s credited with helping to introduce Afro-pop to the the rest of the world, Makeba's songs, at least as presented here, don’t have the exuberance that so animated the hit 2009 musical Fela!  

Some of the songs in Dreaming Zenzile are originals by Kakoma.  But they didn’t jump out for me either. In fact, I found the Afro-pop recordings that played before the show and during the intermission more enjoyable than the tunes in Zenzile.

Lots of people left at intermission during the performance I attended. A few black people in the audience, including the two women sitting in front of me tried to create some supportive energy by swaying their shoulders and bopping their heads to the music but even they eventually ran out of steam.

As for me, I sat there thinking how much more we all might have enjoyed the show if Kakoma, who occasionally seemed to be out of breath after performing Marjani Forté-Saunders’ spirited choreography, had simply followed her first instinct and honored Makeba with the fine tribute concert that she certainly deserves.

 

 

 


May 21, 2022

"Belfast Girls" Updates the History Play


The girls aren’t what they’re expected to be in Belfast Girls, the new show that opened at the Irish Rep this week. They also aren’t what we’ve come to expect to find in historical dramas like this one set in 1850 during the Irish famine in which about a million people starved to death and twice as many fled the country in search of a better life elsewhere. 

And the unexpected makeup of these characters in a history play is precisely what I so admired about this engaging drama by the British playwright Jaki McCarrick. 

 A 2012 finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize that honors female-identifying playwrights, Belfast Girls is inspired by the real-life program in which some 4,000 Irish women volunteered to be shipped to Australia, where they hoped to find husbands among its then-majority male population or to support themselves as servants (click here to read more about it).  

The volunteers were supposed to be teenagers and “morally pure.” But many were considerably older and more than a few had worked as prostitutes. McCarrick’s play imagines the voyage for five of those women who share a steerage cabin during the then-three-month long journey. 

Her women are strangers to one another at first but each has experienced the hardships of the potato famine and each has secrets she’s reluctant to reveal but that, no surprise, will come out over the course of the play as shifting alliances and dangerous rivalries develop among them. It’s the kind of costume drama in which the Brits excel. 

But McCarrick adds some twists. One of the women is Jamaican, the child of a free black woman and a white settler, who ended up in Ireland. Two of the women fall in love. None of that should be remarkable but these kinds of stories seldom get told in these kinds of plays. And they’re particularly welcomed at a time when theater is vowing to be more inclusive.  

I’ve seen lots of shows struggle with that. Many fall back on colorblind casting or making a supporting character gay. But McCarrick has realized that she doesn’t need to shoehorn people of color or queer people into history because they were there all along. Instead she simply weaves these storylines into her overall narrative, and does so without any pat-me-on-the-back fanfare.

The result is a fresh look at a period that has been viewed primarily through the eyes of straight, white men. Of course, none of this would matter if the storytelling were poor. But McCarrick has crafted a crackerjack tale filled with romance, suspense and ruminations on class struggle via references to Marx and Engels. 

Aided by a terrific cast (there’s not a ringer in the bunch) director Nicola Murphy hits all the script’s emotional beats. And the creative team is onboard too. Particular shout-outs go to Chika Shimizu for her eye-catching set, China Lee for the smartly detailed costumes and Caroline Eng for the evocative sound design. 

Some theatergoers have griped about the accents the actors adopt (a common complaint for Irish Rep shows) and, to be honest, a few people left during intermission at the performance I saw. But stay if you go—and you should—because Belfast Girls offers the kind of all-embracing and thoroughly satisfying look at history that theater really needs right now. 

 


May 14, 2022

Celebrating Even Making it to Awards Season

It may seem strange for a theater lover—and hip-hop know-nothing—like me to be quoting the rapper Drake but his self-congratulatory lyrics “Started from the bottom, now we're here” seem particularly apt at this theatrical moment. After all, concerns about the spread of the coronavirus had closed theaters everywhere at this time last year but now, we're here, in the awards phase celebrating a full New York theater season. 

Of course, there have been bumps along the way. Broadway shows opened and closed and opened again as infection rates in the city ebbed, surged, wavered. Performances were canceled when stars like Hugh Jackman, Patti LuPone, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig tested positive for the virus. But, thanks to having been vaccinated, they all returned relatively quickly to their productions, even though the Tonys had to extend their deadline so that nominators would be able to see all the shows and all the contending performers. 

Meanwhile, tourists, the lifeblood of Broadway, have been slow to return and the city’s official marketing organization is predicting that visitors to New York will be down about 15% from the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. And even some locals have been skittish about seeing shows, including those off-Broadway. 

All of that has caused premature closings, even of touted shows. The much-praised revival of Nzotake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf announced that it would close next week, three months ahead of schedule, before an online campaign won it a two-week reprieve until June 5. The musical Mrs. Doubtfire is unlikely to be so lucky; after getting just one Tony nomination (for Rob McClure's terrific lead performance) its producers said they will bring down the curtain on May 29.  

On the other hand, people seem happy to pay premium prices to see Jackman in The Music Man, Craig in Macbeth, Parker and her also-starry husband Matthew Broderick in Plaza Suite and Beanie Feldstein headlining Broadway’s first revival of Funny Girl in 55 years, even though those four shows have drawn mixed reviews. 

So the awards this year will have been particularly hard won and may be even more cherished than usual. The Tony nominators tacitly acknowledged that this week when they gave nods to 29 of the 34 shows that opened between Aug. 1, 2021 and May 4, 2022. Even Diana, the much-derided musical about the late princess that ran for just 34 performance, got a nod for its costumes. 

But the biggest bragging rights went to the musical A Strange Loop, which lead the pack with 11 nominations although it was closely followed with 10 each by Paradise Square and MJ, the musical about Michael Jackson. On the play side, The Lehman Trilogy boasted eight nominations, including one for each of its three actors. All the winners will be announced at the ceremony scheduled for June 12. You can find—and debate—the entire list of nominees by clicking here.

Of course the Tonys aren’t the only honors that will be given out over the next few weeks. It can be difficult to keep score because the various awards groups have different qualifying periods. On Monday the Pulitzer Prize committee, which uses a calendar year and recognized A Strange Loop in 2021, gave its award to Fat Ham, a new twist on the Hamlet story by James Ijames that was streamed by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater last year and just started previews for a May 26 opening at The Public Theater. You can read more about it and about the two semi-finalists by clicking here.

A couple of days later the New York Drama Critics’ Circle gave its Best Play prize to Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God, a fantastic play that opened last week at Playwrights Horizons (click here to see my review). It also named Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his 2003 play with a score by Jeanine Tesori, as Best Musical (click here for my thoughts on that one). The musical, which had a brief run at the Atlantic Theatre, is scheduled to open on Broadway in November and you can see the impressive list of runners-up for best play by clicking here.  

There’s even more to come. The Drama Desk, which recognizes Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions, was supposed to announce its nominations on May 2 but pushed them back to this coming Monday.  A day later, the Outer Critics Circle, on whose executive committee I’m proud to serve, will announce our winners for the 2021-2022 season. In the meantime, you can check out the list of our nominees by clicking here.

And this Sunday, I’m going to join my BroadwayRadio colleagues James Marino, Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere to discuss all of this and more on this week’s episode of This Week on Broadway, which you should be able to find here.


May 7, 2022

In Praise of "A Case for the Existence of God"

Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God has been almost universally adored by the critics. And the play, which has just been extended at Signature Theatre through May 22, deserves that praise. It’s a beautifully written piece, beautifully directed by David Cromer and beautifully performed by the actors Will Brill and Kyle Beltran

I’ve also been impressed with the many ways in which it speaks to the people who see it. One critic, recently a new father, was moved by the play’s loving portrayal of contemporary fatherhood. Another was taken by its sensitive depiction of male friendship. 

I appreciated all that too but what made A Case for the Existence of God so special to me were its insights into the feelings of alienation that have so divided this country. 

In some ways, you might call Hunter a bard of MAGA country (click here to read an inter view with him). It’s not that he’s an advocate for Fox News watchers but in play after play, Hunter has displayed an empathy for the white working class—be it the cashiers at a Hobby Lobby store in his 2010 breakout play A Bright New Boise, the wait staff in a chain restaurant like the characters in 2014’s Pocatello or the displaced miners in 2019’s Greater Clements.

These are the folks who feel as though the America their parents knew and that they expected to inherit is disappearing and that the world is leaving them behind. Paying heed to those fears and showing those people that they still have a place in our more diverse society might have made them less susceptible to troublemaking extremists in 2016 and on Jan. 6, 2021—and might yet make a difference in this year's important midterm elections. 

Like all of Hunter’s plays, A Case for the Existence of God takes place in the playwright’s native Idaho. The specific setting this time is Twin Falls, a real city with a population of about 50,000 people, but the symbolism of its name shouldn’t be overlooked. The play’s two characters are Keith, a black mortgage broker; and Ryan, a white first-time buyer. Both are in free fall when we meet them.  

Keith, who is college-educated and has a dual degree in Early Music and English, is gay and acutely aware of living in a place where black people are in a distinct minority. Ryan, who only made it through high school and works the line at a yogurt plant, is straight and desperately wants to buy some land that his ancestors originally homesteaded but that his family lost over the years.

You can almost see the banners of blue-state elite and red-state yokel waving over their heads. But Hunter doesn’t deal in polemics, even when making room for his characters to complain about their circumstances. 

Although brought up in the comfort of a middle-class family, Keith still bears the emotional scars of being bullied for his race and sexuality by Ryan and his friends when they were in high school. The child of addicts, Ryan feels that he drew the shorter end of the stick. "I’m sure it was hard for you, growing up in this town, I’m sure it’s still hard to live in this town," he tells Keith. "But you know what else is hard?! Being in this town and being dirt fucking poor!"

But Hunter's plays work because he refuses to allow his characters to be identified solely by their grievances and instead digs deep into the specifics that reveal the humanity beneath their issues. Here it's that both Keith and Ryan are fathers. Keith is trying to adopt the little girl he’s been foster parenting since she was an infant. The recently-divorced Ryan is fighting for joint custody of his daughter. 

Despite their differences, the men bond over their love for their children and the loneliness they both feel in a country that seems to save its best stuff for people who aren't them. “I think we share a specific kind of sadness,” Ryan tells Keith.

Although the actors never leave the cramped space of Keith's office, the narrative moves forward over several weeks (shout-out to the invaluable lighting design by Tyler Micoleau) as their characters struggle to negotiate the financial and governmental bureaucracies that will determine their fates. 

I’m obviously not going to spoil the outcome for you.  But I will say that Hunter doesn’t just show empathy, he prescribes it. I think that what he's saying is that the only way we’re going to get out of our current political morass is to accept the ways in which people on all sides fail, to acknowledge and attempt to ease the pains each of us suffers and to join in celebrating the things we all cherish.  

The saying goes that the devil is in the details, but in this play, the case for the hope that God represents is quietly but effectively made in the interstices between its lines. And that's what makes this such a work of wonder.


April 30, 2022

Four New Shows Try to Answer the Question "What Kind of Show Belongs on Broadway?"



Seventeen shows opened or reopened on Broadway this month and as I bounced from one to the other, I found myself asking what exactly is a Broadway show. The simplest answer to that question is, of course, any show that’s on Broadway. But as the four shows below demonstrate, it isn’t always that simple. 

THE LITTLE PRINCE found that out the hard way. This adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved 1943 novella uses music, dance, fanciful costumes and Cirque du Soleil-style aerial acrobatics to tell the story of the titular character’s metaphysical travels to various planets in search of love and friendship. It’s been a hit in Europe, Australia and the Middle East and was supposed to enjoy a four-month run at the Broadway Theatre as part of its world tour. But the lack of dialog, the heavy reliance on videos and the confusing narrative seemed out of place on Broadway. Critics panned the show and theatergoers didn’t seem to know what to make of it either (about a fifth of the audience left at intermission the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show). So this week,  just two weeks after its April 11 opening, the show’s producers announced that it would close early on May 8.   

On the other hand, some shows seem tailor-made for Broadway. MRS. DOUBTFIRE, a staged version of the 1993 movie that starred Robin Williams as a divorced dad so desperate to be with his kids that he masquerades as a female nanny, fits right into the trend of popular films that have become Broadway shows. Directed by musical-comedy maestro Jerry Zaks, it’s funny and colorful, filled with witty songs by the brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (click here to read more about them) and features a bravura performance by Rob McClure. The Outer Critics Circle, of which I’m proud to be a member, liked it too and this week we awarded it six nominations (click here to see all of them), including one for Catherine Zuber’s terrific costumes, which allow McClure to quick change from his male to female personas right in front of the audience. This is an old-fashioned show, the kind that used to advertise itself as one the whole family could enjoy.  And I think they actually would.  
 
A STRANGE LOOP might seem an odd candidate for a Broadway run but this musical about a young would-be musical maker who is black, queer, somewhat overweight and totally insecure has drawn some of the best reviews of the season. The show, whose semi-autobiographical book, score and lyrics were all written by Michael R. Jackson, also won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming only the 10th musical to be awarded that honor (South Pacific, Rent and Hamilton are among the others). The show boasts a bunch of ear-wormy songs, a narrative that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking and a slew of terrific performances including one by 23-year-old Jaquel Spivey who just graduated from college last spring and lends the main character a winning vulnerability (click here to learn more about him).  But A Strange Loop also has graphic depictions of sex, some blasphemous representations of religion and lots of profanity, including the n-word. I was a fan when the show played off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons back in 2019 (click here to read my review) but I worry that this is the kind of offbeat show that despite being embraced by the theater cognoscenti might have a harder time drawing in the civilians on whom Broadway depends and is eager to woo back after the long pandemic pause. So I’m curious to see whether it will stick its Broadway landing.


Star vehicles have always found a home on Broadway and Billy Crystal’s MR. SATURDAY NIGHT could be the epitome of that genre. This new musical is based on Crystal’s 1992 movie about a once-famous comic trying to make a comeback. His protagonist Buddy Young Jr. was a big shot in the era of 1950s variety shows but 40 years later, finds himself unhappily doing gigs in nursing homes until he’s given one last shot at the big time. The movie portrayed Buddy as an egoist who mistreated his brother, wife and daughter as he climbed to the top. But Crystal, who grew up in a showbiz family, has long revered those Golden Age comics and he shares their appetite for Borscht Belt humor and their hunger for applause and so he and his collaborators—the Hollywood screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell who worked with him on the book and the Broadway vets Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green who do the score—have softened the character, allowing Crystal to woo the audience. I had thought his shtick might be outdated and have limited appeal but, if the the two 14-year-old boys sitting next to me who kept doubling over with laughter are any indication, Mr. Saturday Night could play for many nights to come.